Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trump and Sanders

That sign - the one pointing in the direction of the White House - is looking ever closer to the truth.  Trump hasn't just won South Carolina, he's once again swamped his opponents.  While Jeb Bush finally acknowledges that his lame and unconvincing campaign really isn't going anywhere, Ted Cruz must also be feeling anything but glorious as he contemplates the failure of his vote to go beyond the already tied-in evangelicals.  As for Rubio, he's made it big - for the first time - by coming in second a bare few percentage points above Cruz.  Not exactly the aura of an invincible challenger to the galloping maverick in front of him.

It's still difficult to see how the Republican race might coalesce around a serious challenger to Trump, and in the meantime the Donald should start thinking about possible VP picks.  And here's a mould-busting thought.  Given that Hillary Clinton may finally have consigned her own opponent to the position of supporting act in the Democrat race, through a decent - though hardly mind-bending - victory in Nevada, there is an appealing insurgent available for other political duties. 

Bernie Sanders is as much a maverick in his way as Trump, and his political positions are more nuanced than the campaign has really let on.  Trump, meanwhile, picked up plenty of moderates and independents in the South Carolina vote.  What about the power of a doubly insurgent campaign to clear up on American voters' detestation of "politics as normal"?  With this being the year of the challenger, could a Trump-Sanders ticket be either unbelievable or beatable?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Trump comes to Washington

Donald Trump's presence is already clear in Washington DC.  A couple of blocks down from the White House a large placard announces that Trump is coming here in 2016.  Whether or not his company's renovation of the old Post Office building into its latest hotel (with what will be "Washington's largest ballroom" - just right for an inaugural ball) is a sign of a more serious presence in the nation's federal capital is yet to be seen, but as South Carolina's primary enters its closing phase as I write, Trump is starting to look like an unstoppable force.

If New Hampshire proclaimed Trump's ability to transcend the largely hostile coverage from the mainstream media, and his clear political potency after having been seen initially as a national joke, then South Carolina could be the primary that makes him the almost unbeatable front-runner.  Trump as president is not looking quite such a remote prospect today.

Of course, this extraordinary and unpredictable race still has many curves to navigate, but Trump as stayer and possible victor is shaping up as a clear line in the primary sands.  Cruz is his closest runner, and that is one of the reasons South Carolina is so significant.  Win there, and Trump shows that he is more than capable of winning the evangelical vote on which Cruz's run so much depends.  Cruz's appeal is narrow compared to the more iconoclastic Trump. 

As for Rubio, as one MSNBC commentator noted today, coming 3rd., 5th., and 3rd does not constitute front-runner status.  He needs to win somewhere!

If South Carolina goes for Trump today, he may not need the swanky new hotel he's building.  There's a nice residence just down Pennsylvania Avenue just waiting for the New York billionaire to move in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Justice Obama? McConnell's blocking strategy could be fantastic news

Well it's a thought anyway.  If conservative Justice Antonin Scalia's death has plunged America into a potential constitutional crisis and more crie de coeurs about whether its system of government is fit for purpose, there is still some mileage to be made by beleaguered Democrats.

In short, Scalia was a conservative Justice - rigorously conservative actually - whose replacement by anyone even marginally to his left could initiate a change in the political direction of the Court.  And make no mistake, political direction is what it is all about.  This court has long been political, whether it was as an activist liberal court under Earl Warren, or the Republican leaning Court that appointed its political fellow traveller, George W Bush, as president in Bush v Gore in 2000.

So its opinions may be beautifully worded and legally argued to the nth degree, but they have a huge political impact and the Justices all know it.

So does President Obama, the appointee to date of two Justices - each of whom replaced a retiring liberal.  In his reflections on what makes a good Justice, one of Obama's least legal but most impressive citations was that of empathy. As Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick notes in a fascinating article, Obama understood that justice is not some remote, detached concept but actually affects people's lives.  The former law professor commented that:

I want my justice to understand that part of the role of the court is to look out for the people who don’t have political power. The people who are on the outside. The people who aren’t represented. The people who don’t have a lot of money; who don’t have connections. That’s the role of the court.

Not something, as Lithwick points out, that could ever have been considered the abiding value of the late Justice Scalia.

The battle to replace Scalia is potentially undermining for America's system of government, and showcases the level of polarisation that country's politics are now delivering.  Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is quite clear that he doesn't see any need to appoint a new Justice until America has a new president.  He is way out of line constitutionally, but well in line in a party that is so rigorously partisan that it has no memory of what it was once like to legislate and govern in the national interest.  McConnell and his allies on the Hill make Richard Nixon look like a model of bi-partisan leadership.

But could the Republicans' determination to co-opt the Supreme Court into their political battles backfire?  Suppose - no mean supposition this - that the Republicans do not win back the white House and it goes to either Clinton or, more dangerously for them, Sanders?  Suppose the larger than usual number of voters who always tend to come out for presidential elections take against the Republicans enough to push the Senate back into Democratic hands?  It's not unusual for it to change hands in the presidential election years after all.

What price then Senator McConnell's bullish strategy?  A Democratic president, and a recently out of work law professor who has just served the nation as president.  Could Obama be the retaliatory nominee for the Supreme Court under a President Clinton or Sanders?  After all, former president William Howard Taft went on to serve with distinction as a Justice.  And Clinton, no matter how spontaneously, embraced the idea when a voter in Iowa suggested it.

It would be poetic justice indeed if president Obama became Justice Obama because the Republicans chose to delay appointing a Supreme Court replacement for a year after a vacancy arose.  Oh please make it happen!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Putin shows the West how you do Mid-East policy

The devastating impact of bombing and renewed fighting upon Aleppo in Syria is being brought home to us via news reports and tales of ever increasing numbers of refugees.  It also places a spotlight once again upon the imperturbable Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, Middle East strategy.  Briefly hailed as a joint step forward with western interests, it is in fact clear that Putin - unsurprisingly - has no interest in western aims and is methodically, and successfully, pursuing a Russia First policy in his dealings in Syria.

The BBC's diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, gives a cogent and clear assessment here of just how Mr. Putin is winning his own war in Syria.  And, as Marcus points out, it includes an abject lesson to western governments mired in confusion as to how to carry out middle-eastern policy.  Marcus notes that Russia chose a credible side to back in the civil war, one that had sufficient forces on the ground; set herself achievable goals (in this instance to back the Syrian government and bolster its control of a clear area); and committed sufficient forces herself to achieve her limited aims.  She is succeeding admirably.  The West by contrast, as Mr. Marcus notes, is struggling even to work out what its aims are.

Nothing will come out of the present round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and it is unlikely that Syria will ever revert to its original borders in a single, unified state.  With Libya heading the same way - see another BBC correspondent, Frank Gardner's report here -there is an urgent need for the key western governments to work out a viable response, especially since Libya's mess, unlike Syria's, emerged directly out of a proudly trumpeted interventionist policy from Mr. Cameron and the then French president Nikolas Sarkozy.  Getting rid of dictators seems easy.  Filling the vacuum is, as ever, a nightmare.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

America's Wind of Change

As I noted below, I don't think New Hampshire can give us any clear indications as to the future roll-out of this extraordinary 2016 presidential campaign.  But it has at least confirmed that 2016 is the year of the anti-establishment iconoclast.  That the insurgencies in both parties were well advanced was clear before New Hampshire, and the vote there has given it a bit of real-poll traction.  The key thing, as must have been noted a zillion times already today, is whether those odd insurgencies can be maintained away from the rarefied atmospheres of Iowa and New Hampshire.  If there is a consensus wisdom it seems to be that Trump has the better chance of taking it all the way to the convention floor in what is a significantly more disrupted party, and of course he has reliable deep pockets where Sanders needs the regular mass contributions of his punters.

The poll tracking from Real Clear Politics currently has Trump comfortably leading Cruz in South Carolina (36 to 19.7 polling points), with Rubio still in third.  I guess that still awaits the wash from New Hampshire mind you, so the next few days' polls will be particularly keenly watched for any signs of a Rubio depression.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has a still more comfortable lead over Sanders of 62 to 32.  Even less accurate but nonetheless interesting, the national match-up polls have Clinton losing to both Rubio and Cruz, but just beating Trump, whilst Sanders loses only to Rubio, beating Cruz (just) and Trump.

While both insurgencies suggest a real sense of alienation from the body politics, it is the Democrat race that merits perhaps some closer attention.  Trump has been sucking a lot of the oxygen from the campaign coverage recently, because he provides more outrageous, media-friendly outbursts.  The Sanders rebellion is more considered, and based around a rising grassroots anger amongst Democrats at the failure of their leaders, and the political establishment generally, to tackle the over-weening influence of big corporate money - specifically banking money - in their national politics.  In the storm created by this anger Hillary is proving especially vulnerable, which is why Sanders has stolen a state she once won from under her nose, and edged ahead in nearly all of the voter gender and age demographics.

If you don't quite get the anger of Democrats - and I must confess I didn't - then this Slate piece from H.A.Goodman really digs into the anti-Hillary anger and exposes her frailty as an old-style political chieftain mouthing grassroots friendly platitudes which her funding simply doesn't square with.  The old adage of "follow the money" is further explored in this Atlantic piece from Conor Friedersdorf which looks at the extraordinary links between the Clintons and the giant Swiss bank UBS.

If the Democrat yearning is for a clean candidate who can repair their liberal credentials then Sanders is the man.  The problem then, of course, becomes the growing polarisation of America.  A Sanders-Trump or Sanders-Cruz face-off in the autumn takes to the national stage what has been going on in Washington for some years now - a complete, binary approach to politics that has no room for the once shaded area of the middle where compromise used to take place.

This is still a Democrat-Republican race mind you.  Michael Bloomberg may offer the media a decent story and a veneer of honest broker between the two extremes, but the reality is that he is probably as redundant as the old Republican establishment, thrashing around trying to find people to support them.  Bloomberg's a maverick and combines business savvy with progressive social views, but he's no iconoclast and divided America may be looking for a whirlwind to clean it out, not a gentle breeze.

New Hampshire's Lessons

What does New Hampshire tell us about the likely future course of the US presidential nominations?   Nothing.  Seriously.  There will be no lack of important commentary on Rubio's struggle to finish third, and how that means he is falling back/still very much in the race.  How Sanders' win is 2008 again for Hillary/is no real concern to Hillary.  How Trump is clearly headed for the Republican nomination/is still a joker leading a pack ready to devour him.

Iowa and New Hampshire are fascinating states, and their early primaries give some actual voting figures to a race that has had to rely on polls since last summer.  Momentum in those states has traditionally allowed candidates to move ahead with more funding into the sunlit uplands of the south and west.  But the reality is that these lily-white states are not very representative of the immense diversity that is America's demographic,  and while providing excitement they have not fundamentally changed the contours of the nomination race.  These remain a likely Clinton win for the Democrats, after which her real struggle, to convince a divided America of her credentials for the presidency, begins.  And a Trump/Cruz/Rubio fight for the Republican nomination, with Trump and Cruz vying for the loony vote whilst Rubio seeks to stack up the Establishment.  Current wisdom is that Rubio would be much the most dangerous candidate in a Clinton fight, but if there is any takeaway from these early votes it is that Trump is no longer a joke.  He's a serious - and currently front-running - contender who could yet upset all previous political calculations.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Bloomberg's Candidacy?

Michael Bloomberg has hinted that he may stand as an Independent in the forthcoming presidential race.  One of my students, preternaturally informed about politics, had suggested this scenario to me last week and I had airily dismissed it, with the assured, patronising air that only years in teaching can perfect.  So it is personally annoying to find the former New York mayor making his candidacy mutterings again.

However, he's not yet declared, and Bloomberg does have a habit of flying his balloons and then retreating back as if they were a blue touch-paper.  And it is difficult to see what he gains from an independent candidacy, unless it is a manoeuvre to further de-stabilise the Republicans by dragging their moderates (there are still a few) into his camp.  So I may yet be right.  God, I hope so.  It's humiliating to find a 16 year old has a more prescient grasp of political outcomes than I do!

Cameron has more trouble with the opposition (that'd be the newspapers)

With the Labour party mired in their own internal squabbles, of which yesterday's fractious meeting with shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry was the latest example, David Cameron's opposition is centered elsewhere.  And where better than those responsible denizens of principled opposition than the print media.

The press leapt into over-drive again today to condemn Cameron's suggestion yesterday that France might consider moving the UK border back to Dover in the event of a British exit from the EU.  Their headlines and commentaries trumpeted a major mis-step on Cameron's part, with the Telegraph headlining France's response as being opposed to any such movement.  The sources for this strong assertion were strangely limited and anonymous, with the most credible reference being a speech by French Internal Affairs minister Bernard Cazenove - made last October.

In fact, Cameron's suggestion has rather more credibility than the average Telegraph headline.  Former ambassador to Paris Sir Peter Ricketts pointed out on the "Today" programme this morning that the main French opposition, led by Nikolas Sarkozy, has already suggested they want to move the border, and they are not alone amongst the opposition parties.  The biggest block to moving it at the moment is indeed Britain's co-membership of the EU with France.  They're in this together.  But not if Britain leaves.

The Britain Out campaign may lack a decent figurehead at the moment, but they have no lack of propaganda in the form of the majority of the national press, and no "Stay" campaign will be easily able to match that.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Cameron's problem is less the EU and more a hostile media

David Cameron undertook a considerable gamble when he promised to try and get some reform of the EU in Britain's interests, in order to then pursue a referendum on continued membership.  Both elements of the same strategy, they were designed to lance the most lethal boil on the Tory body politic, Europe.

The country at large is not particularly bothered about Europe.  It's there, we're members, it's probably corrupt like most political institutions but hey, what can you do.  That's the broad line of thought - if any exists - that the majority probably have towards Europe.  It is completely at odds with the Tory world's utter obsession with the project.  The Telegraph's usually reliable sketch writer, Michael Deacon, tries to have a pop at Cameron's new deal by picking out its most obscure element and sarcastically suggesting it'll be the talk of the pubs (“Oh, well that changes everything. If Cameron’s won a declaration on the subsidiarity implementation mechanism and a burden reduction implementation mechanism, I’m definitely voting to stay in.")  

But the joke is surely on him, and the legion of other vein bursting commentators in today's papers.  People aren't talking about anything to do with Europe, subsidiarity implementation mechanism or otherwise.  This has always been about a Tory war in which the Prime Minister commands much the more depleted army.

Mr. Cameron has probably done as well - or better - as any leader of a single country within a large regional organisation could hope.  One Belgian MEP quickly ran through the gains Cameron had made on the Today programme, and it would be difficult to suggest that nothing has happened as a result of his intensive lobbying.

Whatever the Prime Minister has secured, he must always have known that it would be roundly and vigorously criticised by the die-hard Euro-scpetic establishment.  Herein will lie his most significant and dangerous battle.  Not in Brussels, amongst well-meaning diplomats and fellow politicos who are seeking some sort of helpful compromise that can keep Britain inside the EU.  It will be out in the newspapers of Britain.  Mr. Cameron will follow in John Major's footsteps in unleashing the full fury of the print press on him.  A glance at today's front pages gives you the general gist, and that's before you open up to read the splenetic outpourings of a legion of sclerotic right-wing iconoclasts.

British press owners are relentlessly anti-Europe for relentlessly commercial reasons.  With barely a single British taxpayer among this largely foreign domiciled elite, they can all see that a Britain freed from the market regulating restrictions of the EU is a country in which their commercial interests can thrive and survive with far less intrusive inspection than if she stays in.  It's good for their business to come out, even if that might not be the case for British business at large.  A Murdoch or a Barclay would much rather deal with the looser UK system than the prying eyes of EU commissioners.

The happy press owners are thus keen to give full leeway to their EU-hating writers, editors and pontificators.  This will be Cameron's battle.  He may be Prime Minister, but in this war he and his small band of supporters are going to be very much the David to the British media's mighty Goliath.  Every single news item about Europe, every apparently objective report on Cameron's negotiations and deals, will have to be read through the all-pervading anti-EU filter.  It will be a war of attrition - which started years ago - and the surprise will be if, at the end of the referendum process, the British people remain inured to their newspapers' injunctions and vote to stay in.  If they do, it will be one of the biggest blows to the power of the press ever struck.  The EU is almost a bystander.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Iowa in perspective

Excellent piece in the New York Times from Nate Cohn on the Iowa caucuses.  He pushes down into the figures and comes up with some shrewd analysis.  As someone concerned by the Cruz strength, I was particularly interested in this gutting of the Republican front-runner's figures:

But his path to the nomination is still not an easy one. He will face full-throated opposition from many prominent Republicans, as was the case here in Iowa. And Mr. Cruz’s narrow victory was not especially impressive. It depended almost exclusively on strength among “very conservative” voters, who are vastly overrepresented in the Iowa caucuses. There was no primary state where “very conservative” voters represented a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in Iowa. He won just 19 percent among “somewhat conservative” voters and a mere 9 percent of the “moderate” vote.

Like many commentators today, Cohn considers Rubio to be the real winner in the Republican stakes; a last-minute headwind of support put him within biting distance of Trump and could build up to make him the establishment candidate to take on - and beat - Cruz.

The Washington Post, of course, also has excellent coverage (as does Slate) with this piece by Chris Cillizza offering a quick tally of losers and winners.  He sees Hillary breathing a sigh of relief in avoiding a major loss; she may have won or she may have tied or she may even have lost very marginally - but it was a win in that she has kept up her momentum and continues to look like a much better and stronger campaigner than in 2008.

The American papers obviously offer more informed commentary than much of the British media, although the BBC's Jon Sopel and  the Times' Tim Montgomerie are prescient observers, as is Today's James Naughtie whose enthusiasm for the process combines with his customary insight to make thoroughly worthwhile listening (scroll to around 35:10 here for example).  I was disappointed with the Spectator Coffee House's simplistic and uninformative piece, especially given their excellence in the field of British politics, but you can't have everything.

The Iowa Storm

You can see why Iowa has a state law mandating that it be the first state to hold caucuses in presidential election years.  If she wasn't, few candidates would do much listening to this small Mid-Western state.  As it is, every four years she gets huge amounts of love and attention lavished on her and it must feel good.

How much the Iowa caucuses can determine the course of presidential nominations remains moot of course.  In 2008 the Democrat race took a new and irrevocable turn when Barack Obama beat the "unbeatable" Hillary Clinton.  In 2012, however, Rick Santorum was victorious in the Republican race - and now he is merely a footnote in presidential election history.

So we should be wary of predicting long-term trends from the informal votes of a small but committed Iowa population.  That said, this is at least the first time real people have committed themselves to different candidates, and whatever lies ahead it's the first indication we have of how much or little these candidates appeal to ordinary voters.

The Democrat race - still neck and neck as I write - represents something of a success for Bernie Sanders.  The small-time senator from Vermont is giving the big-time former Secretary of State and First Lady a real run for her money.  She's not been buried, and the Sanders insurgency hasn't got the steam - it appears - of the Obama one eight years ago.  But by pipping or equalling Hillary in the final count, Bernie is keeping his race alive and the Democratic party benefits in consequence.  Hillary does too.  The Sanders campaign keeps her both grounded and sharp, and the whole party gets energised, as Slate notes here.

There are few similarly positive gains for the Republicans, even with the much vaunted Rubio third place showing.

Trumps' bubble hasn't been burst, but it has been pricked, by Ted Cruz's victory and that will send moderate Republicans into a tailspin every bit as bad as would a Trump victory.  Worse, possibly.  Where Trump makes outrageous noises to gain attention, he is in fact a pragmatic businessman-turned-politician who would probably show some executive competence and, when it came to real-time decision making, would be unlikely to take stupid risks.  The same cannot be said for Cruz.  He's a flip-flopper, certainly, and has all the sincerity of Lucifer, but you get the impression that this snake oil salesman par excellence would be just the man to take America down a disastrous ideological path because his base demanded it.

Cruz is the preferred candidate of the evangelical vote.  This is a potentially huge vote, and the last Republican to really energise it effectively was George W Bush.  Take from that what you will.

There is an episode of the popular American TV series "Supernatural", made in 2008, when one of the demon-hunting Winchester brothers is catapulted into the future to see what the apocalypse would be like once it's run its course.  He goes just 6 years ahead - to 2014 - and one of the most horrific indications that the world was indeed doomed was a newspaper headline proclaiming "President Palin Bombs Houston"!  It undoubtedly spoke to the real fears of 2008 liberal America about the then fiery - if monumentally inarticulate - Republican vice-presidential candidate, even if it now comes across as a piece of nostalgic whimsy.  Well, look again, because the idea of a President Cruz is ten times scarier than the (even then) unlikely prospect of President Palin.

Then there's Marco Rubio.  His strong third place finish is giving rise to comments which suggest that he is now the establishment candidate poised to take down the Trump/Cruz rising.  Rubio is more polished than either of his rabble rousing rivals, but only in this Republican race could he possibly be seen as a moderate influence.

Iowa has shown us trends that may or may not continue as the primary season lengthens, but it already shows us the depths to which US Republicanism has fallen, and heightened the need for the Democrats to be as battle-fit as possible in the autumn.